YSU’s Quest to Defend Tournament Title Starts Wednesday vs. Valpo

Joe King (photo by Kevin Davis)
Joe King (photo by Kevin Davis)

The Youngstown State baseball team's quest to repeat as Horizon League Tournament champions begins on Wednesday at Oil City Stadium in Whiting, Ind. The Penguins enter the tournament as the fifth seed and will play host Valparaiso in the opening round at 1 p.m. Eastern. The entire tournament will be streamed live on ESPN3, and live stats throughout the week will also be available. Tickets for the tournament are available at the stadium gate. For information on prices, go to ValpoAthletics.com.

A Youngstown State victory in the opening round would send it into the double-elimination rounds starting on Thursday against either top-seeded UIC or second-seeded Wright state. Wednesday's games are single elimination, a change in format from previous years, meaning YSU must beat the Crusaders to have a chance at making another NCAA Regional.

Youngstown State enters the tournament with a 16-33 overall record, and the Penguins were 9-21 in Horizon League play. YSU is the fifth seed in the tournament for just the second time in the program's 14 years competing in the Horizon League. Youngstown State was 3.5 games better than Oakland in the standings.

Sophomore left-hander Joe King will start game one against the Crusaders, and he'll be followed by sophomore righty Jeremy Quinlan should the Penguins advance. King led all YSU starters with a 4.01 ERA during the regular season, and he held Valparaiso to one run in 11 innings during the regular season. Quinlan has allowed just five earned runs and struck out 18 batters in his last 22 innings over the last month.

Quinlan is one of three players on the roster who were on the all-tournament team in 2014 as the Penguins swept through the field to head to the Bloomington Regional. Quinlan earned a complete-game victory over top-seeded Wright State in the second round last season, and he was joined on the all-tournament team by Matt Sullivan and Shane Willoughby.

After beating Valparaiso 7-3 in the 2014 tournament opener, YSU went on to defeat Wright State 7-1 and Milwaukee 11-5 to advance to the championship game, and the Penguins topped Wright State again 5-4 to win its second tournament title. YSU went on to beat Indiana State in the Bloomington Regional for its first postseason win at the Division I level and just the Horizon League's fourth since 1999.

Quick Notes

  • YSU has won at least two games in the Horizon League Tournament in three of the past four seasons. The Penguins won their first-round game in each of the two previous times the tournament was held in Indiana (2005 and 2010).
  • YSU was 0-3 against Valparaiso in postseason play before beating the Crusaders in the first round in 2014. The teams are 1-1 in games played in the opening round, and Valpo is 1-0 in elimination games versus YSU (2011).
  • YSU had its most regular-season victories since 2010.
  • The Penguins have their lowest staff ERA since 2008.
  • The staff's nine saves are tied for the most since 2005.
  • The team's 53 steals are the most over the last five seasons, and the 73.6 percent success rate is the best since the Penguins were successful on 75.2 percent of their attempts in 2004.
  • Frank Califano's 19 steals are the most by a Penguin since Kellen Dixon and Kendall Schlabach both had 19 in 2001. The last Penguin with 20 steals in a season was Mark Thomas with 20 in 1998.

Penguins Embrace Underdog Role

Youngstown State will be in a familiar and comfortable position in the Horizon League Tournament as an underdog. The Penguins are 16-13 all-time in the conference tournament in games played as the lower seed. In contrast, they are 1-8 as the favorite. YSU was the sixth seed last season when it won the title, and it was seventh the first time in won the tournament in 2004. YSU has only been the fifth seed once, and it went 0-2 in that position in 2013.

Finishing Up Well at Home

YSU ended the regular season by winning three straight series at home. Over the final seven weeks of the season, the Penguins went 9-6 at Eastwood Field with series wins over Oakland (twice) and Wright State. They also won home non-conference contests against Canisius, Kent State and Bowling Green.

More "Small Ball" In Gillispie's Third Season

Youngstown State's offense has featured more bunting in 2015 than in Steve Gillispie's first two seasons as YSU's head coach. The Penguins have 23 sacrifice bunts, one more than last year and four more than in 2013. More importantly, YSU has 29 hits on bunts this season, which is 14 more than both of the previous two years and the second-most since 2000. Junior outfielder Frank Califano has 16 of YSU's 29 bunt singles. That's the most bunts for a base hit by a Penguin since at least 2000. John Koehnlein is the only other YSU player to reach double digits, and he had 10 in both 2006 and 2007.

Quality Wins in 2015

Youngstown State has seven victories this season over teams ranked in the top 106 of this week's NCAA RPI. The top win was at RPI No. 18 Radford, which is 39-14 and has been ranked in the top 25 in national polls. YSU has also beaten RPI No. 61 Wright State three times, RPI No. 96 Indiana State, RPI No. 102 Kent State and RPI No. 106 Milwaukee.

Califano Among League's Top Players

Youngstown State junior outfielder Frank Califano has been among the Horizon League's top players in his first season as a Penguin. A transfer from Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif., he tied for the league lead with 74 hits and was six points shy of winning the batting title. He was second in average at .365 and second in stolen bases with 19. He was the top hitter during conference play with a .383 batting average, and his 49 hits were also tops in the circuit by six. He hit safely in YSU's final 24 conference games, and he had hits in 29 of YSU's 30 league games. Overall, his hitting streak entering the Horizon League Tournament sits at 18 games dating back to April 15 against Kent State.

Tough Road Through Last Year's Tournament

Youngstown State certainly went through the gauntlet to win its second Horizon League Tournament title in 2014. The Penguins beat the top-seeded Wright State Raiders twice (once in the quarterfinals and again in the finals), the No. 3 seed Valparaiso Crusaders and the No. 4 seed Milwaukee Panthers. The Panthers were the host of the tournament at Kapco Park in Mequon, Wis., which is located 16 miles north of Milwaukee. The Penguins became the fifth team to win the Horizon League Tournament since non-divisional play began in 1991 by beating the No. 1 seed twice.

Taking the 2014 Tournament by Storm

Youngstown State led the 2014 Horizon League Tournament in batting average (.340), runs per game (7.5), ERA by starting pitchers (1.85) and fielding percentage (.993). In each of those four categories, YSU was significantly better in the tournament than it was during the regular season. Heading into last year's tournament, YSU was batting .248, averaging 4.4 runs per game, had an 8.45 ERA from its starters and had a .959 fielding percentage.

Better In Tournaments Outside Northeast Ohio

Youngstown State has won at least one game in the Horizon League Tournament in each of the last five times it has been held outside of Northeast Ohio. In addition to winning four games in 2014, YSU won two games in Chicago in 2012; two in Dayton, Ohio, in 2011; one in Gary, Ind., in 2010; and two in Chicago in 2007.

Going Out to California for Talent

The Penguins have strong ties to California through Head Coach Steve Gillispie's and Associate Head Coach Kevin Smallcomb's connections in the state. Smallcomb was the head coach at Mendocino College in California from 1993 through 2002. Gillispie recruited the state often while serving as an assistant coach at Nebraska and Utah, and he was an assistant at Mendocino College in 1992-93.

YSU has eight players on the roster who hail from California: Lorenzo Arcuri (Roseville), Frank Califano (Alpine), Ryan Cordova (Whittier), Brent Gillespie (Penngrove), Anthony Konders (Torrance), Alex Larivee (Sacramento), Jonny Miller (Anaheim) and Jared Wight (Los Angeles). Arcuri, Calfiano, Gillespie, Larivee and Miller all started at least 32 games, and Konders leads the team in saves. California natives have 53 percent of YSU's hits and runs this season.